BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A U.S. official on Wednesday urged vigilance over Russia's policies in the troubled Balkans, where Moscow has sought to increase its influence and undermine that of the West.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Brian Yee said in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, that the United States will "strongly defend and protect" its interests and those of its allies.
"We, of course, remain hopeful that Russia will play a constructive role in the Balkans, as it has in the past, but we must remain vigilant, all of us, we believe, in watching what Russia is attempting to do," Yee said after meeting Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Yee singled out an attempted coup in Montenegro in October, allegedly organized by Russia to thwart the country's NATO bid, and Russia's energy policy in the region, which has countries relying solely on Russia's energy supplies.
"This is not to say that we assume bad intentions behind every gesture, but we do know from experience that the intentions behind many of Russia's moves are not good, are not consistent with the interests we believe are the interests of the countries in this region," Yee said.
He added that Serbia and other Balkan countries should boost reforms needed to join the European Union following the wars in the 1990s that crippled the region's economic development.
Vucic, who was traveling to Brussels later Wednesday for an EU-brokered meeting of Western Balkan leaders, said the main goal in the Balkans is to preserve the hard-won peace and stability.
Serbia is formally seeking EU membership but has recently shifted toward Russia, a traditional Orthodox Christian and Slavic ally.
Yee said what Russia is doing "bears close scrutiny."
"We very much believe it is very important to push back against misinformation, fake news, malign influence from Russia or any other external source, even as we seek forms of cooperation where we can," Yee said.
In Montenegro on Wednesday, a former Serbian police chief denied involvement in the alleged coup attempt in his first appearance before the court after being arrested on the eve of the Oct. 16 parliamentary elections.
Bratislav Dikic, the main suspect, said he "did not attempt to commit or committed any crime I was charged with."
Associated Press writer Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro contributed.